New From Next Billion: Bridge Stumbles in Uganda, BlackRock Under Fire, Smart Matatus and Pokemon to the Rescue

Promising developments – and the inevitable stumbles – have been keeping the social business space lively. Here are a few recent stories that have grabbed NextBillion’s editors’ attention.

A bridge too far? 

New NextBillion LogoBridge International Academies has attracted high-profile impact investors like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg thanks to its low-cost, internet-based educational curriculum for children across several African countries. In July, it also attracted the attention of the Ugandan government, which recently accused the company of running unsafe schools, and ordered shuttered all of Bridge's 63 nursery and primary schools operating in the country.

As NextBillion and others have reported, Bridge is now fending off accusations from Janet Museveni, Uganda’s minister of education and sports. On Aug. 9, Museveni told the Ugandan Parliament that Bridge failed to properly license many of its schools, and that those schools “showed poor hygiene and sanitation which put the life and safety of the schoolchildren in danger.” Museveni said the conditions warranted an urgent response: the schools will be closed at the end of the summer school term, Sept. 2.

In a pair of press statements (found here and here), Bridge has called the allegations false, saying “there is no widespread threat to public health at our schools.” Bridge also claims the global federation of teachers unions, Education International, had something to do with the complaints against the schools, which cater to base of the pyramid students, sometimes with tuition as low as $4 a month.

In spite of the seriousness of the charges, Bridge seems optimistic that it will weather the crisis. A company spokesperson told NextBillion via e-mail that: “The High Court of Uganda issued an injunction to halt the closure notice until the 2nd September 2016. In all likelihood, on the 2nd the court will give both parties time (two to eight weeks) to negotiate and settle the issue out of court, during which time the academies will remain open. If negotiations are not successful the issue proceeds to a judicial review, which could take months or longer.”

Bridge says its 63 nursery and primary schools across Uganda, with 12,000 students enrolled and 800 staffers, will remain open during these proceedings. Overall, there are 100,000 students enrolled at over 400 Bridge International Academies, according to the company – so we’ll be keeping a close eye on this story as it develops.

Is BlackRock ‘facilitating slaughter’? 

That’s the argument of Gays Against Guns, a group formed days after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando last June. The group launched a campaign this month demanding that BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, divest its stock holdings in the firearms industry.

“The money BlackRock has invested in Ruger and Smith & Wesson goes toward the design, manufacturing, and marketing of some of the deadliest weapons sold in the world,” it said in a mass email. “You are facilitating slaughter, with the June 12 killings of 49 LGBT people in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub being only the most recent.”

The group’s activism has escalated quickly from mass email campaigns to civil disobedience in the lobby of BlackRock’s Manhattan headquarters, and it has already proven to be remarkably adept at drawing media attention. Though it’s not the first divestment campaign to target firearms manufacturers, it’s the first (to our knowledge) to frame gun control as an LGBT issue.

Gays Against Guns' campaign links gun-company divestment to a community whose activism has driven one of the most dramatic social changes in U.S. history. But as we discuss here, its approach – and the decision to focus on BlackRock, which launched a dedicated platform for investors with environmental and social objectives last year – raise some tough questions that could pose a headache to the SRI movement.

Pokemon to the rescue. Or not. 

Can anything productive come of people wandering aimlessly, mumbling to each other, staring at their smartphones and hoping for a fanciful discovery? Yes, according to some of the global health practitioners we interviewed.

The mumbling wanderers are the millions of Pokemon Go players trying to “catch ’em all.” Even as they’ve been emerging from behind their computer screens to commit “accidental exercise” outdoors, some health professionals are dreaming up ways to use the phenomenon to amplify their message, raise money and/or recruit volunteers and patients.

For instance, Andreas Seiter, senior health specialist at the World Bank, told us the game might help provide incentive for follow-up care. And Ashim Roy, founder and CEO of uber Diagnostics, said Pokemon could help boost engagement for health care apps: “There is much to learn from this game for any team that is delivering solutions to masses.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Adam Lewis, communications and marketing manager for Gradian Health Systems, needed no help augmenting his views of the new reality: “I think the app’s only real global health impact will come in the form of road traffic accidents and cliff falls.”

One man’s marketing opportunity is another man’s pet rock.

Social ministry – or social enterprise? 

There’s no shortage of impact investing-related conferences on the 2016 calendar, but June’s Second Vatican Conference on Impact Investing stood out – and not only because of the stunning location. The event brought together leading lights from both the social impact sector and the Church to discuss the ways impact investing can help the poor, and John Kohler of Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship provided on-the-ground reporting on the interplay between the two distinct groups of attendees, representatives of Catholic social ministries and impact investors.

“The first group’s ‘street cred’ on serving the poor is unassailable,” Kohler writes. “The impact investors, on the other hand, have a more complicated reputation when it comes to helping those at the base of the pyramid.” As Kohler put it, faith-based organizations have traditionally viewed the business and financial world with some suspicion, believing that their focus on profit is fundamentally incompatible with the anti-poverty mission of social ministries.

With even Pope Francis acknowledging “the ultimate connection between profit and solidarity, the virtuous circle existing between profit and gift,” the two groups are discovering that they have a lot in common – “not only in their shared goals of helping the poor, but also in the ways that they measure social impact.”

In fact, he said, impact investors are increasingly realizing that many social ministries “are simply small businesses that are largely donor-supported, which means many are potential social enterprises in disguise” – some of which will likely make the transition from contributed to earned income.

Smart matatus.

What are matatus? They’re minibuses that account for more than 70 percent of Nairobi’s total daily commuter traffic, and they’re amazing: wi-fi hotspots, LED lights, large flatscreens, tablets for personal entertainment, state-of-the-art graffiti, sound systems … enough funky extras (pictured above) to make them tourist attractions.

Oh, and they’re extremely dangerous. Even in Africa, where your chances of dying in a road accident are the highest in the world, matutus stand out; in Kenya, more than 90 percent of fatal traffic accidents involve matatus.

Everyone agrees the matatu culture is worth preserving, but they don’t have to be so dangerous, do they? A team from the University of California at Berkeley aims to find out through its SmartMatatu project. They’re conducting a randomized controlled trial in Nairobi, deploying affordable, off-the-shelf sensor devices in 250-plus matatus that collect and send data to a mobile network, enabling owners to track their vehicles’ location, productivity and, most importantly, unsafe driving. The information might also be of use eventually to insurance companies looking to make more accurate risk projections, banks assessing loan provisions, and regulators.

It’s a study with a worthy purpose: If owners develop ways to incentivize their drivers that do not compromise safety, then roads could be safer, service improved, labor practices made fairer and the matatu industry more profitable and professional.

Aging and saving.

Here’s an underreported statistic: The fastest growing age group in the world is people 60 and over. Right now, they make up just over 12 percent of the global population, according to the United Nations Population Fund. By 2050, that number will rise to almost 22 percent.

Those numbers represent a major victory for the development sector – the results of global improvements in nutrition, sanitation, health care and other essential priorities. But they also bring some significant challenges, not least of which is the question of how countries can ensure that their aging populations have enough retirement savings to get by.

That was the topic of two thought-provoking posts this month. The first involved Innovations for Poverty Action research in Chile, which explored whether receiving personalized information about their pension payouts could encourage lower-income individuals to save more for retirement. The answer: yes. Among the intriguing findings: Receiving “bad news” about their lower-than-expected pension savings apparently startled people into saving more.

The second post detailed the “demographic time bomb” represented by the millions of undocumented Hispanic immigrants living in the U.S. Some plan to return to their home countries, and many hope to stay in America. In either case, due to lack of savings and eligibility for Social Security, they’re “woefully underprepared for the financial burdens of retirement.” This isn’t just a challenge for the social safety net, it’s also an opportunity for financial services providers, who could design products to help this population save for old age – including by tapping into the billions of dollars in remittances flowing from the U.S. into Latin America.

Disclosure

New NextBillion LogoNextBillion editors Scott Anderson and Kyle Poplin contributed to this post. 

ImpactAlpha is collaborating with NextBillion to highlight coverage of the top stories, leaders and trends in social business. In periodic ImpactAlpha posts, the NextBillion team will share the key stories, innovations and market activities that have caught their eye in recent weeks.

Photo by Alvin Byrone.

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